The United States is deeply concerned over the sentencing of Chinese ethnic Uighur professor Ilham Tohti to life in prison. He was convicted of separatism in what many considered to be a politically-motivated trial. Mr. Tohti and several of his students were taken into custody on January 15 and transferred to Xinjiang, an autonomous region home to 10 million Uighurs.
Mr. Tohti’s trial and severe sentence appear to be part of a disturbing pattern of arrests and trials of public interest lawyers, Internet activists, journalists, religious leaders and others who peacefully express their views or challenge official Chinese policies and actions.
As an economics professor at Beijing’s Minzu University, Tohti created a website to promote understanding between Uighurs and Han Chinese, which Beijing authorities shut down in 2008. Mr. Tohti’s trial and sentencing have silenced an important moderate Uighur voice that peacefully promoted harmony and understanding among China’s ethnic groups, particularly Uighurs. It is critical for Chinese authorities to differentiate between peaceful dissent and violent extremism.
The United States has repeatedly expressed its deep concern about China’s attempts to silence dissent and tighten controls over Tibetans and Uighurs. Policies ostensibly designed to maintain stability are counter-productive when they deny Chinese citizens their universal rights and fundamental freedoms.
Mr. Tohti’s 20 year-old-daughter Jewher Ilham is studying at a university in the United States. She said she will continue to fight for her father’s release. “He wanted me to stay in a land that had freedom,” she said. “I’m speaking out for him. I won’t stop.” And neither will the United States.